Radical Conservatives by David Atkins

Radical Conservatives
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

Howie Klein has a great post today assembling bits and pieces from Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind, Robert Reich's recent column on flat taxes, and New York Magazine's profile on Mitt Romney.

The most insightful bit is the juxtaposition of a particular Dinesh D'Souza quote taken from Robin's book, with the newfound universal love of flat taxes from the GOP frontrunners. Here's the D'Souza quote:

"Typically, the conservative attempts to conserve, to hold on to the values of the existing society. But... what if the existing society is inherently hostile to conservative beliefs? It is foolish for a conservative to attempt to conserve that culture. Rather, he must seek to undermine it, to thwart it, to destroy it at the root level. This means that the conservative must... be philosophically conservative but temperamentally radical."

At its core, conservatism has been since the 18th century a slow, grinding fight against the Enlightenment. Religious conservatives are explicitly opposed to the secular humanism that accompanied Enlightenment thinking, and believe that society went off the rails when the Church stopped being the center around which the social order was constructed. Islamists in the Arab world are cut from precisely the same cloth. One of the challenges liberals face is what to do when the principle of national auto-determination runs up against the principle of universal human rights; some progressives think the former takes higher priority, while others see more value in preserving the latter in the interest of Enlightenment principles, even through use of force.

Economic conservatives object to the notion of economic fairness to which Enlightenment principles inevitably lead: it makes no rational sense that the work of someone who plays around and takes risks with other people's money while crashing economies should be valued at 10,000 times the worth of the work of a teacher or a firefighter. There are Enlightenment-centric arguments to be made for economic libertarianism in a world that presumes that markets are free and each individual makes every decision rationally in their own best interest with the most perfect information available. But that is not the world we actually live in, and the imperfections of human nature and information availability make a farce of the economic libertarian ideal.

Knowing how odious anti-Enlightenment arguments appear in the modern world, conservatives have recently found some success in muddying the waters by attempting to graft race, language, gender religion and other cultural constructs onto the Enlightenment, suggesting that only English-speaking white Christian males can truly implement a society based on its ideal. That idea is central to the Tea Party delusion, which twists the Founding Fathers' radically progressive views for their time in history, into a culturally conservative Christianist mishmash. Of course, the idea that only certain classes of human beings are capable of rational humanistic thought is directly contrary to the basic principle of the very civic ideals conservatives profess to protect.

In essence, as D'Souza rightly points out, conservatives aren't actually looking to preserve society as we know it, but rather to destroy it. It's drastically imperfect to be sure, but Western society is based on and strives for humanistic ideals. It often falls far, far short of the mark. But those are the ideals we teach our children, and those ideals are in the very air we breathe.

Conservatives have to work to destroy that through radical means--increasingly so as the social order seems to veer farther and farther away from their anti-Enlightenment grasp.

That's why we're seeing such increasing radicalism from the Far Right, one example of which is the mainstreaming of the sort of "flat tax" craziness that used to be a fringe curiosity of whacko candidates like Steve Forbes.

Despite all the progress they've made in 30 years dismantling liberal institutions, conservatives have a sense--and probably a correct one--that they're one step away from losing this ballgame entirely. Demographic trends combined with increasing cultural liberalism, the decline of religion as a centerpiece of society, and increasing economic liberalism among successive waves of the nation's youth are terrifying for them.

Yes, economic inequality is at a record high, the bankers are getting away with economic murder for now, and multinational corporations are making out like bandits. But that's largely been due to the lack of a countervailing ideological force since the fall of Communism. State communism was a drastic misstep that abused enlightenment principles even worse than capitalism did. Mao Tze Tung and Josef Stalin were the two most egregious mass murderers in world history, and the demise of the ideology to which they hewed is not regrettable.

But it had the effect of temporarily maximizing the power of radical Capitalism based on equally crazy Objectivist principles. But those days are numbered, too, as the Occupy movement is demonstrating. A new progressive economic consciousness is rising worldwide, based on the idea that one needn't create politburos to keep corporate monopolists in check while enforcing enlightened economic fairness for all people.

Conservatives are scared, and they know that they have to take increasingly radical measures to fight back. Which means things are going to get worse before they get better.